Public Administration

Public Administration in Tasmania began when civil officials were organised in Sydney and London for the three settlements established in 1803 and 1804. The largest settlement, at Hobart in February 1804, contained officers with medical, judicial, commissariat (supply), survey, ecclesiastical and convict supervision functions, and Lt-Governor Collins soon augmented their number. He needed formal approvals from Sydney and sometimes London but there was considerable room for local initiative. Convicts provided the backbone of the public works force, but the more educated were employed in the civil establishment as clerks, printers, overseers and the like. Such arrangements were replicated on a smaller scale at the Port Dalrymple settlement.

When the two 'counties' Cornwall in the north and Buckinghamshire in the south were amalgamated in 1812, there were clearly identifiable departments such as Medical, Survey and Commissariat. The departments of the modern public service have their origins in these embryos, and the evolution of the administrative system was a process of continuous growth and adaptation from these beginnings.

In 1825 Van Diemen's Land was separated from New South Wales. Lt-Governor Arthur's position at the apex of the governmental pyramid was accompanied by the establishment of an Executive Council, a Legislative Council (first nominated, later blending elected and official members) and a Supreme Court. The number of departments servicing these instruments of government grew from ten identified in the first 'Blue Books' of 1822, to more than twenty by the mid-1830s, including new Treasury and Customs departments. With the vast increase in the flow of convicts, the Convict Department, a large and complex organisation, became a separate imperial establishment apart from the colonial public service (for a decade after 1844 it also administered the Norfolk Island convict settlement).

The non-departmental public body in the form of a statutory authority also appeared, examples being the Land Board and the Caveat Board that succeeded it, the Board of (convict) Assignment, the Board of Education, the Medical Board and the Bridgewater (bridge) Commissioners. Such bodies reflected the preparedness of government, in the absence of a significant private sector, to provide economic and social services, which was to become such a strong Australian tradition. Another strong Australian tradition, voluntary activity in support of government services, was also in evidence, especially in the form of the Benevolent Societies of Hobart and Launceston.

Around twenty civil service departments existed when Tasmania received self-government in 1856 57. Self-government produced a fully elected legislature and a cabinet of ministers drawn from it. But it did not produce a rethink of the main structures of public administration, with just three departmental headships elevated to ministerial status. Most of the old departments remained unaffected, and cabinet organisation (ministers and portfolios) thereafter developed separately from the civil service organisation (departments). Though a few questioned this duality, there was little interest in achieving a correspondence between the two. There were far more departments than ministers, most ministers having multiple departments in their portfolios by the 1890s the Tasmanian civil service contained around fifty departments, some hospitals and welfare institutions claiming that title in their own right. A royal commission in 1905 challenged this pattern, but significant change did not occur. The pattern was typical of many colonial systems moving towards self-government; indeed, the Tasmanian arrangement has been used to promote better understanding of other decolonising and small-state systems.

The public service grew gradually, and was slow in following other public services in seeking greater efficiency by substituting merit for patronage in appointments providing employment in economic depression was an important goal. There was, however, considerable interest in devolving some functions to newly established local governments operating in more settled areas; Tasmania was unique in Australia in so devolving the police function from the 1860s till 1898. This local government system was extended to the whole state in 1905.

As railways appeared, the state acquired the lines of two private companies in 1873 and 1890 and combined them as Tasmanian Government Railways, a department modified to reflect its commercial and technical character; it did not become a public (statutory) corporation until 1910. Though education was moved to a centralised ministerial department in 1885, the earlier breed of statutory authorities remained important. Some, like the various harbour trusts, marine boards and roads boards, operated at local level outside municipal councils. Others had statewide remit: the Central Board of Health played a conspicuous part in fighting disease and improving public health; the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Commissioners (in their various guises) succeeded in transporting trout ova across the equator in sailing ships and establishing a thriving inland fisheries industry in Tasmania.

The early twentieth century produced two major changes. First, there were fewer state civil servants as sections of the administration, notably the Customs and Post Office departments, moved to the new Commonwealth Public Service. Second, the Civil Service Act (1900) established a part-time Civil Service Board composed of elected senior officials. It provided some consistency in employment conditions and put some brakes on ministerial patronage, but could not meet all the demands of those who sought more economy and efficiency following the loss of customs and excise revenue, another consequence of federation. In 1905, the Board was replaced by a more independent Public Service Board, later reduced to a single Commissioner, with stronger powers to oversee the discipline, general working and efficiency of departments.

Tasmania shared the general Australian tendency to remove parts of the public sector from central public service arrangements. This could happen in either of two ways. First, some departments such as railways, the original hydro-electric organisation, state shipping (1920 29), the tourist service and the Education Department in respect of its teaching staff, were so treated. Second, building on the earlier list of non-departmental organisations, the relevant functions could be devolved to semi-independent statutory corporations outside the public service system: the railway and hydro-electric services were converted in 1910 and 1930 respectively, and many others were subsequently added to this list. The Hydro-Electric Commission, with its excellent technical record but in increasing political difficulty as it came into conflict with environmental interests, was a leading case and attracted much interest around the world; it has sometimes been seen to be a very large tail often calling the shots over a fairly small government dog!

Though often thought of as fairly stodgy, Tasmanian public administration through the twentieth century was innovative enough to pioneer several social developments now widely adopted. Its Australian firsts included introducing the area school system, fluoridating the public water supply, and introducing daylight saving away from the war years. The specialist economic secretariat established within the Treasury in the 1920s, born out of the state's financial weakness as a small partner in the federation, was influential in the establishment of the Commonwealth Grants Commission. Another significant development was the formal agreement of 1924 which saw the state statistical service become the first local office of the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics. Many Tasmanians entered the commonwealth service through this conduit, and helped create the 'Tasmanian mafia' which for many decades gave the state an influence far greater than justified by population relativities.

Not surprisingly, a counter-movement sought to restore some degree of uniformity in setting wages and conditions of employment across the whole public sector, and this led to the establishment of a Public Service Tribunal in 1958. Some greater consistency resulted, but pressure for more substantial public sector reforms was building throughout the Anglo-Saxon world. Many jurisdictions instituted wide-ranging inquiries, Wilenski (who had conducted the New South Wales review in 1977) advised the Tasmanian government, and in 1981 Cartland proposed a new framework to unite traditional departments and most statutory authorities in a single state service. The ensuing 1984 legislation went some way to complying, though still allowing some major exclusions, and 1995 legislation reinforced it by requiring government business enterprises to operate on sound commercial lines and pay dividends to Treasury.

Other changes occurred. In 1993 amalgamations reduced the number of municipal authorities from 49 to 29. With the reduction in the size of the legislature in 1998, cabinet was reduced to seven ministers and the public service to nine departments. Tasmania came much closer to aligning cabinet and public service organisation. In 2000 a new State Service Act sought to be more 'enabling' and less prescriptive, a change seen as more in keeping with the needs of public administration in the twenty-first century.

Further reading: G Cartland, Report of part two of the review of Tasmanian Government administration, Hobart, 1981; R Wettenhall, 'The introduction of public administration into Van Diemen's Land', THRAPP 7/3 and 4, 1959; A guide to Tasmanian government administration, Hobart, 1968; and Organising government, Sydney, 1986; Office of the State Service Commissioner, State Service Act 2000, www.ossc.tas.gov.au.

Roger Wettenhall